After a fierce game of speed Scrabble, my friend Len recently asked me what contemporary Caucasian poets wrote about the subject of race. I came up with C.K. Williams and Sean Thomas Dougherty, but not much beyond that. It got me wondering. Does anyone know any Caucasian poets that have addressed the subject of race in an interesting manner? Even just a poem or two. I guess I'm asking because we live in a country that hasn't owned up to its history; there still hasn't been a formal apology for slavery, and all the xenophobia surrounding the Southern border, with plans to build a fence to the moon, so suddenly every Latino is suspect. I can think of many African-American poets, for instance, who have addressed the subject of race in their poems, but not many Causasians. I guess I think race (and racism) are national issues, applying to people of all backgrounds. But maybe there are poems by Caucasian poets that I'm just not thinking of. I think I remember a poem about Diallo by Greg Fuchs. Probably something by Jim Daniels. I know Whitman addressed race directly, but he's obviously not a contemporary poet.

Originally Published: April 4th, 2007

Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...

  1. April 5, 2007
     Natalie

    I'd like to directly respond with an indirect answer. There may not be many white poets who have written about race. I can't honestly think of any impromptu. But - there are lots of white poets who have written about poverty, the underbelly, the sticks. (Philip Levine, Ginsberg, Bukowski, and that's where my poetry breadth hiccups.) Poor neighborhoods often = non-white residents. Also, let's define White - is White mainstream? Is White money? Is White power? White is the color of skin. And what does that mean?
    Being a poor white does not make you black. Neither does writing about black or brown or poor folks. There is a difference between being disenfranchised, and being disadvantaged, and then again, bad luck. The difference is in the history.
    But - there is something to be said for who sees what. And who writes about what. There is no color quota on insightfulness.
    My 25 whole cents.

  2. April 5, 2007
     Jeffrey

    Hello Natalie,
    Thank you for your twenty-five cents. I will try not to spend it all in one place.
    After reading your comments, I realized "white" may be a vague term, so I went back and substituted the term "Caucasian", though I don't know if it's any less problematic; looking for a definition online I came across this on Wikipedia: In the United States, "Caucasian" has primarily been used as a distinction based on skin color, for a group commonly referred to as White Americans, as defined by the government and Census Bureau.
    The question of a difference between the white race and the Caucasian classification in the United States lead to at least one set of major legal contradictions in the United States Supreme Court in the pre-Civil Rights era. In the case of Ozawa v. United States (1922), the court ruled that a law which extended U.S. citizenship only to "whites" did not apply to fair-skinned people from Japan, because:
    The term "white person", as used in [the law], and in all the earlier naturalization laws, beginning in 1790, applies to such persons as were known in this country as "white," in the racial sense, when it was first adopted, and is confined to persons of the Caucasian Race... A Japanese, born in Japan, being clearly not a Caucasian, cannot be made a citizen of the United States.

    For the record, I'm not positive that very few Caucasian poets have written about race; it is easy for me to imagine that there are many poems out there that I'm not thinking of. In fact, I'd be kind of surprised if the three poets you mentioned didn't have poems that address it. Also, I'm not trying to ascribe a value judgment to poets who have addressed race in poetry. I'm just wondering what's out there.
    Jeffrey

  3. April 5, 2007
     Natalie

    I used to think White was cool, even if mean, like an older sibling. Then I came to college, and learned White was the color of law. Stuck-up. Cruel. Some people think White is just a color; some think it is the color of god. I guess definitions are constant, and constantly changing. I haven't thought about "Caucasian" yet. I'm glad the conversation is hardly over.

  4. April 5, 2007
     Henry Gould

    My book-length poem Stubborn Grew, publ. by Spuyten Duyvil Press in 2000, featured an African/Native American "spirit guy" named Bluejay, who leads the narrator on a kind of satirical journey through the long past of Rhode Island, with some emphasis on the effects of slavetrading, discrimination and political corruption. Bluejay also satirizes American literature generally.
    (I'm a so-called Caucasian poet, though not a household name in poetry. The SD edition of Stubborn Grew is now out of print, but I've re-issued it myself at lulu.com.)

  5. April 5, 2007
     Marie-Elizabeth Mali

    Taylor Mali's got a poem on race called "The Conversation I Never Had About Race."
    I've heard others performed at LouderARTS and Urbana. My guess is that the place you'll find Caucasian poets taking up the issue of race is in the spoken word poetry world more often than in the academic poetry world. That may not be true (given the recent forum at SLC, which I was sorry not to be able to attend), but it's my perception from what I see / read.
    Thanks for bringing this up!
    Marie-Elizabeth

  6. April 5, 2007
     XYX

    Ever read Tony Hoagland's poem "The Change?" Click here to read (scroll down). Made a stir for a bit, but it sort of operates like a low-rent Sarah Silverman, pushing the envelope in the reticent way Hoagland is known for. It's sloppy with its details, conflates with poetic license and thus obscures some of the actual and interesting facts of the particular match he is talking about. That last point, the circumstances of the actual match, are far more interesting than the faux whiteboy cringe this poem trots around like a show pony. So, clearly I don't like this poem, but since it's one that had some traction, I thought it'd be worth bringing up. I'll give Hoagland credit for trying to write about being a white boy; but won't give him credit for trying to get props by writing about being a white boy.

  7. April 5, 2007
     Brian Hadd

    White boy? Whiteboy?
    Emptiness for me is when a piece of art conflates opposing ideas. I think that Hoagland poem conflated opposing ideas. Like when history has a flank.
    The Hood Company

  8. April 7, 2007
     Jeffrey

    I just thought of Lynda Hull, who has some really good poems that touch on it in her last book, The Only World. I guess Robert Lowell's For The Union Dead might qualify.
    I haven't heard the Taylor Mali poem, Marie Elizabeth. You're probably right about spoken word poets addressing it more.
    Now that I think of it, Christopher Davis has a poem in his new book, A History of the The Only War, that touches on race and racism in a gay strip club. The poem is called Why Not Pleasure The Bigot's Body, and it wades into some charged, uncomfortable territory. The poem seems to be set in the South, there's an African-American man on stage in his underwear, and a bunch of (apparently) Caucasian guys in the audience, some make racist comments. The poem does that thing where the only character whose race is mentioned specifically is the non-Caucasian. The poem may offend some peeople, especially when the bigot becomes the speaker, but the piece doesn't come off as cheap or merely trying to be provocative--a trap that I've seen some Caucasian poets fall into.
    Maybe in a later posting I will talk about some of my own challenges when I've tried to approach race in poems.

  9. April 8, 2007
     sara

    i am a high school student who had a spring break report to find a poem about race and racism by a white poet. Obviously, as i am working it on my last day, this has become a difficult task. ive tried to look up the many writers listed here, but i have not found a specific poem, but googled sites.
    the second part of the report was to create your own page long poem about race and racism. after studying race and all its consquences in my classes for the past months i thought this part would also be easy. but in fact, it is not. racism to whites in not a matter that needs to be confronted as urgently as other topics. this shouldnt be the case but whites arent surronded by oppression and inferior messages. therefore, in many situations white poets dont see the problem or the need for poems on race, predujice and racism.
    who knows...i will see the poems my white peers will create and hopefully in the future there will be more.

  10. April 9, 2007
     Susan B.A. Somers-Willett

    Jeffrey,
    This is a great question to bring forth, because often when discussing issues of race and diversity, the conversation quickly becomes focused on non-white writers (as if "white" were somehow invisible as a racial category). On the other side of the coin, I've seen white writers so crippled with guilt that they avoid the topic altogether, which proves another source of this false sense of invisibility.
    Off the top of my head, I think of poets regionally. Jim Daniels is a great choice looking at race relations in Detroit and Pittsburgh; Maurice Manning's Laurence Booth's Book of Visions is a fascinating journey through Appalachian dialect that deals both directly and indirectly with race. I also have some poems about growing up white in greater New Orleans in Roam that deal with race.
    I think Marie-Elizabeth is right; although white authors of any ilk can and do engage the subject of race, it seems most pronounced in the slam and spoken word communities, where performance of identity (and particularly racial identity) are mainstays. Hip-hop is also another poetry community in which the conversation about race is always on tap. [In that vein, if we're thinking broadly, let's add Eminem to our list of white versifiers.]
    I can also think of some poets who are writing from bi-racial backgrounds--Natasha Trethewey and Tara Betts in particular--who complicate and enrich the discussion about race in new ways.
    Cheers,
    Susan

  11. April 9, 2007
     Jeffrey

    Hi Sara,
    Hope your paper turned out ok. It may be too late, but I'd suggest physically going to a bookstore or library, as the selection on the internet might be rather slim, (and I'm not sure what you would type into the search box.). If you physically read through the Selected Poems of C.K. Williams, you will find some poems. Ditto The Only World by Lynda Hull.
    *
    Hello Susan,
    Good to see you. And you're right about the notion of race being complicated and enriched by poets with bi-racial backgrounds.
    We just had a race/poetry symposium at Sarah Lawrence, and it was good to have a Caucasian poet involved: Sean Thomas Dougherty. His step-father, the man who raised him, is African-American; (his biological father left the picture at an early age).
    I also think you're right that many Caucasian writers probably have intense feelings on the matter, but, for whatever reason haven't found an authentic entry point. It's not easy to write a poem when you have a preconceived notion of what you want to say. Maybe I will touch on that later.
    best wishes, Jeffrey

  12. April 10, 2007
     Tara Betts

    Jeff,
    thanks for posting this. This conversation keeps coming up and I have to say that some notable poems and poets have come up in the conversation. I always think of Sharon Olds' poem about being on the subway, sitting across from a young Black man. I also think of up and coming poet Douglas Goetch that I had the opportunity to read with. I'd have to agree with previous comments about the change because I find the poem extremely problematic for a number of reasons. But, I also wanted to express my appreciation for Susan Somers-Willett's comments about Natasha Tretheway and I. Writer/Performance Artist damali ayo often talks about how we need to get beyond a elementary conversations about race, especially as identity is becoming more complicated. I could go on and on, but a short, thought-provoking post is always appreciated.

  13. April 10, 2007
     Maria Melendez

    Have a look at Murder Ballads (Elixir Press, 2005), by Jake Adam York. Here's a white poet from the south grappling with the violence embedded in the south's histories of racism...through lyric meditations and truly gripping narratives. I heard him read from this collection in Tucson; the poems are spellbinding.

  14. April 11, 2007
     johnny w ferguson

    i wrote this a few years back about a man I knew in the '50s in North Carolina. i wrote it through my tears and broken heart as i do now. he was one of the "left overs," "forgotten" from the slaves of a plantation not far from our house, so i learned later. johnny
    The Slave Keeper
    He lived alone in a one room
    shack right in the middle
    of the field--his garden.
    The man didn't know he was a slave
    he just got up before the sun,
    maybe ate a biscuit and
    a piece of fat back washed down
    with strong hot coffee, boiled
    without sugar and cream.
    Then it was to the fields. Soon the
    songs began,
    "Swing low, sweet chariot," echoed
    across the way up
    to my second story room
    with the window open. His voice
    bellowed out all the pain
    from generations passed,
    passed on to him.
    He was black but I didn't know.
    His toil came hard from sun up
    to sun down in the fields.
    The songs only came in the morning,
    singing still--the slave songs.
    I never knew his name, but I knew the
    slave keeper.
    Johnny W. Ferguson

  15. April 11, 2007
     Jeffrey

    Hi Maria,
    Thank you for mentioning Murder Ballads. It looks interesting. I'm going to buy the book.
    *
    Hi Tara,
    I think you and Susan are right about the idea of identity getting more complicated, more enriched.
    I just read the Sharon Olds poem online. What do you think of it? My initial reaction is to lean away from it. I guess because of the stereotypes the speaker projects onto the other character in the poem. Maybe it's most interesting when the poem's focus is on the speaker and white privilege. I guess when the poem's focus is on the other character, I still see the speaker somehow, a less unique side of the speaker.
    *
    Hi Marie Elizabeth,
    Good to see you. You are probably right about the spoken word poets. Are there any spoken word poets you think deals with race in a really interesting way?
    best wishes, Jeffrey

  16. April 15, 2007
     Tara Betts

    I feel like Sharon Olds is acknowleging that she stereotypes this young man that she does not even know, but the similar privilege that allows her to wear the inherited fur coat in the poem gives her room to make assumptions. Since she knows this is problematic, she struggles with it, and the premise of the poem is trying to resolve that struggle. At least that's my take on it.
    Also, spoken word poets have dealt with identity politics in many ways. Some of the poets who come to mind for me include the I Was Born With Two Tongues CD "Broken Speak," Kelly Zen-Yi Tsai, Suheir Hammad, Aya de Leon, Paul Flores, Samantha Thornhill, Roger Bonair-Agard, Ise Lyfe, Robert Karimi. I think also that there are poets that us younger poets could stand to engage on an oral level more often like Kamau Braithwaite, Cecilia Vicuna and Anne Waldman to name a few out of many.

  17. April 16, 2007
     Metta

    Hi, Jeffrey
    I typed in "whiteness studies poetry" in google, and came up with this essay by Julianna Spahr:
    http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/andrews/about/spahr.html
    as well as a book called _White Women Writing White_; Martha Collins' recent book _Blue Front_; i recall Robert Bly's name being thrown around when White Studies was "hot", the late 90s, early 00's.

  18. April 18, 2007
     Jeffrey

    Hello Metta,
    Thank you for the Juliana Spahr link. I look forward to reading it soon. And thanks for reminding me of Martha Collins' recent book. I've heard good things about it.
    *
    Hey Susan and Tara,
    You two are looking pretty smart right now, mentioning Natasha Tretheway. She just won the Pulitzer. Pretty damn amazing.
    **
    Tara,
    Thank you for your comments on the Olds poem. They are very useful.
    One thing that still holds me back a little is that when I read the poem, I feel like I'm watching a movie from the 80's of a Caucasian women in a fur coat, riding alone on a subway for the first time, and projecting her fear onto a young African-American male.
    It seems like the poem is more informed by media stereotypes than lived experience. I know that media stereotypes inform lived experience, but in this poem I feel like it's a character from a movie talking, and not a breathing human.
    But you're right, Olds does explore this character's psyche, and there is a psychic struggle, and the language is alive.
    I will live with it longer and bear your comments in mind.
    I wonder, do you think of the poem as a dramatic monologue in the voice of a character separate than Sharon Olds, or do you see it as more autobiographical, or do you think that's not as relevant?
    best wish, Jeffrey

  19. April 20, 2007
     Tara Betts

    Hey Jeffrey,
    I think the Olds poem is a little bit of dramatic monologue and somewhat autobiographical, not necessarily true but making a point about some people who base their assumptions on something that's more distant like an image on TV. I might have to look at it again myself.
    Also, I'm so giddy about Ms. Trethewey's Pulitzer that I could pop! I had just told her at AWP a little more than a month before that I wish I had written NATIVE GUARD, so I think she's set a damn good benchmark for a lot of poets. HURRAH!
    take care, Tara

  20. May 4, 2007
     Billy Fogarty

    The Irish American poet Daniel Tobin has written about race. He has a book of poems out on FourWay Books called The Narrows where he writes about growing up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, in the 1970s. His reflections on race are subtle but authentic. I grew up in this neighborhood in the 80s and 90s and I think he really nailed a notion of existing within a working class white world in proximity to but separated from racially different neighborhoods. This was a time when Brooklyn was a very different place than it is now, for good and for bad.

  21. May 4, 2007
     Reginald Shepherd

    One problem with this conversation about white poets writing "about" race is that white people are assumed not to have a race--race is about other people. A couple of comments have touched on this point, as in the discussion of the Christopher Davis poem, but none has developed or explored it.
    The basic premise of the discussion is that "writing about race" means "writing about black people" (except for a brief mention of the border fence and of the legal exclusion of ethnic Japanese from US citizenship, apparently there are no other races). And black people are, of course, other. In a sense, we _are_ "race."
    In this way of thinking, "white" is not a race, but simply equivalent to "human." In fact, white people act out, and write of and out of, their racial privilege and insulation all the time. In that sense, Caucasian writers are constantly writing about race. They just don't admit or, usually, know it.
    I have not read the Tony Hoagland or Sharon Olds poems mentioned, but from the discussion of them, they sound like pieces in which a white person congratulates him or herself on being ambivalent and perhaps a bit guilty about his or prejudices toward and preconceptions of black people, as if it's okay to be racist as long as you feel bad (or at least self-conscious) about it. On behalf of all black people, I thank you. It makes me feel much better to know that you're struggling. The frequently encountered sense that such things have never occurred to anyone else before is also a bit wearying.
    I have an extended piece on race and academia on my blog which deals at least in part with some of the racist underpinnings of liberal multiculturalism. It can be found at http://reginaldshepherd.blogspot.com.

  22. May 4, 2007
     Reginald Shepherd

    I have also noticed that when white poets, or white writers in general, write about black people, it's almost always as exotics, frequently mysterious and enigmatic if not inscrutable: that is, when they are not outright minstrel show characters like Berryman's Mr. Bones. Henry Gould's "African/Native American "spirit guy" named Bluejay seems a perfect example of this inability to see and write of black people as people, not just as images or projections of white fantasies, fears, anxieties, and desires.

  23. May 7, 2007
     Jeffrey

    Hello Billy, thank you for your suggestion of Daniel Tobin. I don’t know his work.
    *
    Hello Reginald, thank you for your comments.
    To clarify: when I asked what Caucasian poets explicitly addressed issues of race, I wasn’t implying “writing about black people”, (though your observation is acute–more on that in a moment). Recently I was involved in a race/poetry symposium, and as we assembled poets to invite, there weren’t many Caucasian poets that I could think of that had explicitly (or consciously) addressed issues of race. We wanted to have a Caucasian poet involved, because Caucasian is a race, and race does not just face certain people, or certain groups of people; it is simultaneously a large, national, global issue and also a very specific, private one that pertains to all citizens.
    Your observation that a number of the poems mentioned here that are written by Caucasian poets and address race focus on African-Americans is interesting. That begs the question: when Caucasian poets explicitly write about race, does it primarily involve African-Americans? And if so, why?
    Incidentally Harryette Mullen and Thomas Lux both have written poems (“Elliptical” and “The People of the Other Village” respectively) that touch on issues of prejudice and close-mindedness, where the pronouns are deliberately unspecified. Both are “us” and “them” poems. I believe the authors left the pronouns unspecified for the reader to fill in that blank.
    *
    It’s interesting to me the way language mutates. The original question I posited was a who question–“does anyone know Caucasian poets who have written explicitly about race”. But when it appears on the poetry foundation home page now it has mutated into a why question–“why Caucasian poets have rarely written about race”.

  24. November 20, 2007
     Henry Gould

    Reginald, I suggest you read my poem before jumping to conclusions and passing dismissive judgement - since there's little difference between such snap judgements (based on assumptions) and the stereotyping of which you accuse me. Just as every human being is unique, so there are unique and vastly differing purposes for exploring "race" in writing. "Bluejay" is not simply a racial "type" in my poem : he's a pivotal agent, who shifts its entire ground & shape.
    The fact is, you know as little about me and my experience as I do about you; if we knew each other better, you might be surprised to discover that my personal history is not as "white" as you might suppose.